One of my favourite descriptions of virtuosity is, “doing the common, uncommonly well.’
To me this simply implies excellence in all that we do, even the mundane and seemingly worthless.
We all know what great “movement” looks like. There’s a quality to the movement that’s pleasing to the eye and has a sense of effortlessness to it. Maybe we can’t define it or explain why it’s so, but we recognise it immediately. Whether a snatch or muscle up, air squat or burpee, there’s fluidity to the movement that appeals to our inner critic and we instantly recognise it as correct.
For most conditioning or “cardio” is exertion based. Its defined as how hard we are breathing and whether their heart rate is elevated to uncomfortable levels or not. This perception-based approach reaches the conclusion that higher and harder must mean better.
A more correct definition though and how we should interpret what great conditioning looks like, would be how far from good mechanics do we stray and to what degree have our skills degraded.
The problem with gym based conditioning is that we lose that connection between virtuosity and conditioning. We simply don’t have any immediate feedback that brings the necessity for high levels of execution to the forefront like we would in other conditioning based sports. For example, if we are doing thrusters for time and our elbows drop, we may tip forward and be pulled off balance or worst-case scenario we drop the bar. We can struggle through and ultimately still complete the task at hand, and the assumption is “iv improved my fitness” because my heartrate is jacked sky high. However, if a fighter drops there elbows what happens? They get smacked in the face. If they do it enough time’s, then there counting sheep! The consequences for the same flaw now take’s on a completely different light. The fighter must practice virtuosity. They must strive to do the “common, uncommonly well” because they don’t get to just pick the bar up again. This same approach to conditioning applies to all sports. It’s the ability to execute on fundamental skills with high levels of precision, time and time again, under ever increasing levels of fatigue. The most conditioned individual or team is the one who under the highest demands can execute with absolute effortless precision.
Enter movement economy
Movement economy essentially is how efficient your movement is. How much energy does it cost you to perform a given task. The more we practice and reinforce proper execution, the greater levels of economy we reach. Often as we tire and push through higher heartrates and levels of fatigue, we become sloppier and sloppier in our execution of movements. This is horribly inefficient and actually a far less effective way to complete a task, it demonstrates poor levels of conditioning.
Moving well use to be the exception, that is no longer the case. You are now the exception if you DON’T move well. Everyone moves well, especially at the highest levels. The quality of movement has been raised and the switched-on cats are conditioning themselves to have such resilient movements ingrained that they never seem to tire. There economy and such there conditioning is constantly improving, reaching higher and higher levels, leaving behind those who continue to take the effort-based approach.
Fixing your conditioning
So how do you improve your “cardio”? Mechanics, consistency then and only then intensity. Crossfit has taught this from day one and is probably the most missed and overlooked concept within the entire fitness industry.
First you need to move well, I mean really well, then you need to move well a lot, a real lot, like more than you think, then you probably need to go back and move better and do that a whole bunch. Then you’re probably ready to go back and try move better again, before doing that a heap more. Once you’ve done that do it again then start to layer on small doses of intensity, learning to recognise when and where you start to break down. Once your there, make change. Don’t keep pushing past horrible positions with no awareness and try to justify it with some weak excuse like I was in the pain cave or because you have been sold a lie that you need be about to black out to be getting better or see results.
In a world where many individuals, myself included, are living well within the margins of their limits, to experience the edges of their potential is exhilarating. I get it, pushing yourself to uncomfortable levels of intensity is addictive, but intensity is a subjective experience and doesn’t just come in the shape of a 376bpm heartrate. Intensity is focus and attention to details and the iron will to not ever drop them elbows regardless of how tired we may be. It’s the unwavering ability to focus on each rep as though it was the only rep you get that day. Quality is not an act, it’s a habit.
Being “fitter” is higher degrees of virtuosity and economy. We should earn the right to work at high intensities. Its our reward for being dedicated and discipline practitioners of skill and movement. If you don’t own a position or movement, then there’s conditioning to be done, but that has nothing